Crime & Courts

Ron Cobb, FBI’s top informant in SC Lost Trust scandal, dies

Former lobbyist Ron Cobb, center, testifies in federal court March 13, 1998, as part of the Operation Lost Trust investigation into corruption at the South Carolina State House. With him are lawyers Steve Schmutz, left, and Michael Spears.
Former lobbyist Ron Cobb, center, testifies in federal court March 13, 1998, as part of the Operation Lost Trust investigation into corruption at the South Carolina State House. With him are lawyers Steve Schmutz, left, and Michael Spears. File photograph

Ron Cobb, a lobbyist and key FBI informant in the sting operation called Lost Trust that resulted in criminal charges against 18 members of the S.C. General Assembly, has died.

Cobb, who lived in Greenville County, died Sunday. He was 67.

Lost Trust not only underscored a massive, hidden cesspool of corruption in the S.C. Legislature in the 1990s, it highlighted the weakness of state ethics laws and prosecutors. It took a federal grand jury, federal agents and prosecutors to bring charges against S.C. public officials. No state agency ever prosecuted any lawmaker.

The federal probe began in 1989 as a drug investigation but evolved into an extensive look at vote-buying and corruption in the General Assembly.

In addition to 18 lawmakers charged, a federal grand jury in Columbia indicted other officials and a businessman.

Only one lawmaker was found not guilty by a jury. The other 27 people either pleaded guilty or were found guilty. The trials and investigations went on until 1999, when the last three defendants were convicted.

Cobb, who represented Greenville County in the Legislature in the late 1970s and early 1980s before becoming a lobbyist, turned out to be the FBI’s star witness in numerous trials.

The investigation began in April 1989, when Cobb – then a prominent lobbyist representing big companies in the Legislature – tried to buy a kilo of cocaine from FBI undercover agents.

“Cobb was giving cocaine to lobbyists and legislators,” said longtime ethics expert John Crangle, whose 606-page book on the scandal, Operation Lost Trust, was published this year.

“He told the FBI he had bribed a bunch of legislators, and he could do it again, if they would give him transactional immunity – a promise not to prosecute him on the cocaine and bribery charges,” Crangle said.

“That’s how he became the sting guy.”

Since Cobb had served in the House, he had a close relationship with lawmakers few lobbyists had, Crangle said. “And he had been giving key legislators bribes in cash and cocaine. He knew who could be exploited.”

At the time, then-U.S. attorney for South Carolina, Bart Daniel, and then FBI-special agent for South Carolina, Fred Verinder, had to decide whether to use Cobb as a drug informant and score some easy drug arrests or go for something bigger.

“We had to decide whether we do a buy-bust, getting Cobb selling drugs to a legislator, make a big splash, get some newspaper headlines, or do we try to work for the long term and try to bring out the corruption?” Daniel, now a Charleston attorney, told The State newspaper on Thursday. “We went for the long term. It was not a sure shot.”

But Daniel and Verinder, with input from the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., decided on the deep dive. “Without Ron Cobb, Lost Trust doesn’t happen. We had been trying for years to get someone on the inside of the General Assembly legislative process.”

To make the scam work, the FBI and Cobb concocted a legislative bill that would have allowed pari-mutuel betting, or pool betting, on horse racing.

They got Cobb to arrange meetings to see if lawmakers would take cash for helping to pass the bill. In reality, the only reason for the bill was for the FBI to see how many lawmakers would agree to take a bribe.

During the first half of 1990, numerous lawmakers met with Cobb and took cash handouts ranging from as little as $300 to as much as $4,300 in handouts for supporting the betting bill, Crangle wrote in his book. Cobb handed out cash in his suite at the former Town House Hotel on Gervais Street and his office in a nearby high-rise. He also used a boat tied up at Hilton Head called the “Tally Ho.”

At each sting site, the FBI videoed Cobb giving greedy lawmakers cash.

“It’s a business doin’ pleasure,” chortled Cobb in several videos, giving bribes away.

In 1999, after the last Lost Trust defendant was sentenced, Cobb told a reporter he considered himself a good guy and credited the FBI with helping him clean up his life, the Associated Press reported then.

“I’ve always looked upon myself as a good person, and back then I was a good person doing bad things,” Cobb said then.

Bob McAlister, owner of a Columbia public marketing and public relations firm, grew up with Cobb in Greenville County, playing Little League and high school baseball with him, said Thursday he remembers the good about Cobb.

“We grew up a street apart and started together in the first grade,” McAlister said. “He was the president of our class at Carolina High. I have nothing but good memories of Ron.”

In his youth, “He was always the tallest guy in the class – tall, athletic, outgoing, handsome, a born leader,” said McAlister, who was chief of staff for the late Gov. Carroll Campbell when Cobb was working undercover for the FBI. “He just had every leadership quality you can imagine.”

McAlister said, “He was an all-star baseball player. He never settled for a bunt – he always tried to hit a home run.”

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